What were the “ethnic” foods when you were growing up? Have your views changed as you got older?

Ethnic food, National Museum of American History

Ethnic food, National Museum of American History

As many of you are aware, I grew up in small town Kentucky so just about anything other than fried chicken or pot roast or Country Ham. Maybe fried pork chops or spaghetti (the most “ethnic” food going for us.) Anything beyond these most basic of foods could qualify as exotic or ethnic in the ’50s and early ’60s in Kentucky. My mother would try to expand our horizons and force us to try things like fried calf brains.

I know that a lot of the things my dad would cook like squirrel, rabbit, frog legs, and other fresh small game probably fits many folks definition of an exotic or even ethnic food, so in reality, classifying a food item as “ethnic” is most dependent on where and when you grew up.

As an adult, it was a bit of a revelation for me to live in Hawai’i where I discovered that rice was something other than your basic Minute Rice. I discovered some of the differences and joys of Japanese versus Chinese versus Korean dishes. I found out I liked kimchi as a spicy side dish.

Living outside Boston and in upstate New York, I learned that there is more to Italian cooking than adding a tomato sauce on spaghetti or opening a can of Chef Boyardee. I am sure what I ate and tasted in those areas is probably not comparable to eating meals in Italy but it was still different enough from what I grew up eating to be an ethnic and exotic dish in some respects.

Today, you can find Indian or Pakistan or Thai or Vietnamese restaurants in most large cities across the US. You can eat out in smaller towns and find tasty dishes that are a comfort food for some folks and an ethnic food for others. Most mall food courts will have a variety of once “ethnic” restaurants re-purposed as US fast food eateries. Most grocery stores will have special sections for Hispanic foods, Indian, and Oriental style cooking. If you are in an area where an ethnic minority has settled, you might find some even more interesting food items in the grocery aisles as well.

So what have you learned to love as an “ethnic” food? Have you learned to make it or do you just find a restaurant that serves the food to your taste?


Photo from InSapphoWeTrust licensed under Creative Commons